“Take a Sad Song and Make It Better” A biographer realizes the virtues of Paul McCartney.

Paul McCartney: The Life

Philip Norman (2016, Little, Brown and Company) 853 pages, including photographs and index

I should probably make it clear from the outset of this review that I am a Paul guy. In that most vexing of cultural divides, I would (begrudgingly) choose “I’ve Just Seen a Face” over “Tomorrow Never Knows,” Ram over Plastic Ono Band, a Höfner violin bass over a black Rickenbacker. My obsession with all things Fab has been longstanding one, and I continue to be fascinated by all the tidbits I still pick up when reading a new book about the band—the revelation that the Beatles almost starred in an adaptation of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (with Paul as Frodo, Ringo as Sam, John as Gollum, and George as Gandalf) remains probably the most fascinating thing I have learned this decade.[1] And while I love them all—All Things Must Pass is a desert island disc for me and I even own healthy stack of Ringo records—I tend to be partial to all things McCartney. At more than a few dinner parties, I have found myself breathlessly proclaiming the virtues of lesser known McCartney records, making passionate arguments for Red Rose Speedway and McCartney II to more than a few unprepared (and probably bored) partygoers.[2] More than any of his former bandmates, McCartney has been obsessed with producing new music, and part of the pleasure of following his career is discovering that wonderful B-side (“Back on My Feet”) or the unreleased track (“Yvonne”) that few people know about. When his current world tour came to Busch Stadium this summer, I quickly got two tickets, even though I knew was flirting with disaster: my wife, pregnant with our first child, would be very close to her due date by the time August rolled around. We joked that if she went into labor during the show we would name the kid after a Paul song. Rocky Raccoon Shipe had a nice ring to it.

We averted disaster that weekend: my wife was gracious enough to let me go to the show with a friend and the concert itself was fantastic and emotional as McCartney and his band joyously romped through three hours of perhaps the finest catalogue in pop music. Never the tortured artist, McCartney has almost always seemed preternaturally comfortable in his own skin: he largely seems to enjoy being one of the world’s most famous musicians, and such assuredness has perhaps made him a less than appealing subject for biographers. Considering the degree of his celebrity, he has lead a remarkably stable personal life, with his long marriage Linda Eastman, who died in 1998 of breast cancer, proving to be one of the most durable and stable in rock’n’roll. And with the exception of some poor packing habits, which in 1980 led to some well-publicized trouble in Japan, and his tumultuous second marriage to Heather Mills, McCartney has largely avoided the tabloids. While preserving an approachable persona, Paul has nevertheless remained the hardest of the Fabs to pin down. Far more cautious than either Lennon or Harrison, McCartney has always maintained a cheerful, but guarded presence, and in interviews he tends to recount the same carefully crafted stories about his days in the Beatles. One gets the sense that the old Saturday Night Live sketch where Chris Farley nervously asks a bemused Paul such revealing questions as “Do you remember when you were with the Beatles?” is fairly close to McCartney’s daily reality, and he has mastered the skill of gracefully deflecting any inquiries that might get too close.

Despite his difficulty as a subject, a series of recent biographies—Peter Ames Carlin’s Paul McCartney: A Life (2009), Howard Sounes’s Fab: An Intimate Life (2010), and Tom Doyle’s Man on the Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970s (2013)—have attempted to chronicle McCartney’s life.[3] Each has its merits, but they all have struggled to offer much insight into what has driven his seemingly endless creative output.[4] Even Barry Miles’s otherwise excellent Many Years From Now (1997), the closest that McCartney has to an authorized biography, remains strangely quiet on the post-Beatle years, wrapping up Paul’s solo career in its final two chapters.[5] Philip Norman’s recently published biography of McCartney, Paul McCartney: The Life, in many ways aims to correct this imbalance. Coming in at a staggering 853 pages, Norman’s book is certainly the longest biography of McCartney to be published, and it offers a more than thorough overview of the Cute Beatle’s life and career.[6] The book is, in most regards, exhaustive: Norman even includes a prize winning essay that a ten-year old McCartney composed for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, an essay that Norman notes “already shows a talent for telling a story in a short space and is a model of neatness, its spelling and punctuation almost perfect” (39). In another amusing early anecdote, Norman suggests how wary John’s Aunt Mimi, who largely raised Lennon, was initially wary of Paul, who was decidedly from a less affluent household than the one Lennon enjoyed. “Oh, yes, he was well-mannered—too well-mannered,” Mimi says of her first impression of a teenaged McCartney. “He was what we call in Liverpool ‘talking posh’ and I thought he was taking the mickey out of me. I thought ‘He’s a snake-charmer all right,’ John’s little friend, Mr. Charming. I wasn’t falling for it. After he’d gone, I said to John, ‘What are you doing with him? He’s younger than you … and he’s from Speke.’”

“Oh, yes, he was well-mannered—too well-mannered,” John Lennon’s Aunt Mimi said of her first impression of a teenaged McCartney. “He was what we call in Liverpool ‘talking posh’ and I thought he was taking the mickey out of me. I thought ‘He’s a snake-charmer all right,’ John’s little friend, Mr. Charming. I wasn’t falling for it.”

Over the course of five sections, Norman covers the complete span of McCartney’s life and career, showing how “John’s little friend” composed many of the most memorable songs of the previous century. The Fab Four’s break-up occurs neatly at the book’s midway point and the remaining 400 pages dutifully chronicle McCartney’s life after the Beatles. While it admirably retells the Beatles’ story from McCartney’s vantage point, Norman’s book seems more invested in making a case for how we might understand the seemingly uninterrupted flow of music that McCartney has produced over the course of the past forty-five years. “Although his back catalogue is pop music’s equivalent of the works of Shakespeare, [McCartney] still feels as great a need to prove himself as the rawest beginner,” Norman asserts in the book’s prologue. “In common with so many of rock’s enduring monoliths—Mick Jagger, Elton John—adulation seems to go through him like Chinese food, leaving him always ravenous for more.” Although not the most flattering simile, this assessment does begin to point toward the seemingly boundless need to create and play music that would seem to characterize McCartney’s professional life. Now almost a decade past his sixty-fourth birthday, McCartney remains caught between the desire to create new music—of his contemporaries (Dylan, the Stones, Pete Townshend, Ray Davies, Paul Simon) he seems to be the most creatively restless and hardly a year goes by without some sort of release—and the desire to be the curator of the Beatles’ legacy, a task that he fulfills by continuing to tour with a setlist primarily filled with Fab Four classics.

Best known for his earlier work on the Beatles (Shout!: The Beatles in Their Generation [1981] and John Lennon: The Life [2009]), Norman situates his McCartney biography as a companion piece and, to a lesser extent, a corrective to his earlier work on the band. Published in the immediate aftermath of Lennon’s 1980 murder, Shout! had put forward an especially dim view of McCartney, helping solidify the largely inaccurate image of John as true artist and Paul as callow showman. When promoting that book in the early 1980s, Norman pointedly declared that John had been “three-quarters” of the Beatle, an assertion that not surprisingly endeared him to Yoko, establishing a relationship that would give him the access that he would later need to write his biography of Lennon.[7] “The main criticisms of Shout!, by the lyricist Sir Tim Rice among others, were its over-glorification of Lennon and bias against McCartney,” Norman writes in the prologue to Paul McCartney: The Life. “I replied that I wasn’t ‘anti-Paul’, but had merely tried to show the real human being behind the charming, smiling façade. Actually, if I’m honest, all those years spent wishing to be him had left me feeling in some obscure way that I needed to get my own back. The pronouncement that John had represented three-quarters of the Beatles, for instance, was (as Tim Rice pointed out) ‘mad’. Paul himself hated [Shout!], so I heard, and always referred to it as Shite.

Indeed, Paul McCartney: The Life opens on somewhat of a strange note as Norman confesses all the nasty things he has written about Paul over the past few decades. Norman even recounts a satirical poem (“Oh, deified scouse with unmusical spouse/For the clichés and cloy you unload/To an anodyne tune may they bury you soon/In the middlemost midst of the road”) that he had published in the Sunday Times Magazine as Paul and Wings were flying high with their 1977 hit “Mull of Kintrye.” The book is not exactly a prolonged apology to Sir Paul—there is no road to Damascus moment and the biography ends with Norman deciding to leave a 2015 McCartney gig in Liverpool before the final encore—but it does correct the skewed view of the Lennon/McCartney partnership that he had put forward in his earlier work on the band.

Norman, in fact, goes out of his way to give McCartney the benefit of the doubt, maintaining a careful distance when approaching the trickier aspects of Paul’s personality or life. In covering McCartney’s troubled marriage to Heather Mills, he offers an even-handed account that nevertheless offers little credence to Mills’ assertion that Paul was a “domestic tyrant” during the course of their union. The book contains no big revelations and is careful not to place blame on McCartney for the fracturing of the Beatles’ partnership. Of the infamously strained White Album sessions, Norman remains diplomatic, noting that the “only one to stay totally committed and focused was Paul, and what was seen as his schoolmasterly bossiness and badgering caused strife with George and John—or, rather, the two-headed entity John had become—that even their worst pressures on the road never could.” Perhaps the most amusing tidbit that Norman uncovers is that Paul has hairy legs that he used to like to have combed by the mother of one of his first serious girlfriends—“Oo, Vi, give me legs a comb,” he would request after a long night out. Such light moments are typical of Paul McCartney: The Life as Norman ultimately offers a largely sympathetic portrait of McCartney’s personal life and a respectful, if occasionally less than enthusiastic, re-evaluation of his music.

At its most revealing, Paul McCartney: The Life captures how deeply shaken McCartney was by the band’s dissolution. Norman nicely illuminates the seemingly contradictory position that Paul established for himself within the band. Always the member most invested in the notion of being a Beatle—it was McCartney who desperately wanted the band to get back on the road and play small gigs again as it splintered in early 1969—he also had a tendency to keep himself slightly separate from the rest of the group.

The McCartney who emerges remains a largely engaging figure, a devoted father and husband and constant worker and perfectionist who tends to strike the contradictory pose of a careful nonconformist. “For all his taste and sophistication,” Norman writes toward the end of the book, “[McCartney] remains primarily a musician who functions best late at night and is happiest among others of his profession, though no longer a pot-smoker for fear of setting a bad example to Beatrice [his daughter with Mills] and his grandchildren. And beneath the melody and sentiment is the same anarchic spirit that took the Beatles closest to heavy metal with ‘Helter Skelter.’” At its most revealing, however, Paul McCartney: The Life captures how deeply shaken McCartney was by the band’s dissolution. Norman nicely illuminates the seemingly contradictory position that Paul established for himself within the band. Always the member most invested in the notion of being a Beatle—it was McCartney who desperately wanted the band to get back on the road and play small gigs again as it splintered in early 1969—he also had a tendency to keep himself slightly separate from the rest of the group, an inclination evident in his decision to live in the heart of Swinging London while the rest of his bandmates retreated to the suburbs. McCartney’s insistence on keeping himself partially isolated from the rest of the band remains vital to understanding the group’s shifting internal dynamics, and for coming to terms with his later attempts to reconcile himself with his Beatle past. Nevertheless, Norman’s portrait of McCartney’s relationship with his fellow Beatles remains slightly fuzzy. The book briefly charts Paul’s uneasy relationship with the Stuart Sutcliffe, but never fully captures the intricacies of his partnership with Lennon or his relationships with Harrison or Starr.

Norman, however, offers a much sharper and entertaining portrait of the other key people in his life. The opening sections of the book do a wonderful job of evoking Paul’s family life in Liverpool. The death of his mother Mary when he was fourteen would be the pivotal event of his childhood—a loss that would later solidify his bond with John, who would also lose his mother during his teenaged years. Norman suggests how McCartney’s father, Jim, provided a warm “rough and ready” home in the wake of Mary’s death. Indeed, Jim McCartney emerges as one of the book’s most fascinating characters: Paul’s father “might be a humble cotton salesman who’d left school aged 14, but he had a capacious mind and memory and a thirst for knowledge he’d always striven to pass on to his sons.” A musician himself, having played in jazz bands in his youth, Jim remained supportive of his son’s musical ambitions, but could not help but chastise Paul for spreading dreadful Americanisms when “She Loves You” hit the charts (“Couldn’t you sing ‘Yes, yes, yes for once?’”). The book also captures the importance of Paul’s relationship with the actress Jane Asher, whose family McCartney lived with during the early onslaught of Beatlemania. Norman also wisely delves into Paul’s long marriage to Linda Eastman, and in many ways she is the most fascinating and engaging figure within the book. There are no big revelations in Norman’s treatment but of Linda, but he nicely captures how she helped stabilize Paul’s life after the Beatles’ bust-up.

While its last section gets bogged down in chronicling McCartney’s short-lived relationship with his second wife Heather Mills, the biography as a whole is smartly designed, giving an even-handed account of what Sir Paul has been up to in the forty-five years since the most famous band in the world split up. Norman both captures McCartney’s astute business practices—Paul made much of his fortune by accumulating a vast catalogue of other people’s songs—and his charitable work, in particular his sustained work to help establish the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, which opened in 1996. Norman also touches on the bulk of McCartney’s vast solo catalogue, and he offers a particularly refreshing assessment of the classical releases that he released in the early 1990s. Of Liverpool Oratorio (1991), his first classical piece commissioned for the Liverpool Philharmonic’s 150th anniversary, Norman warmly notes that McCartney “may have failed to become an Arnold Schoenberg and had to settle for being a modern Gershwin—but he had given his birthplace something precious beyond price.” [8]

Even as he admirably covers some of McCartney’s more eclectic projects, Norman appears less assured when considering some of his better-known music. There are a few mistakes that McCartney aficionados will pick up on: he botches the opening lyrics of “For No One” and gives incorrect track information for Off the Ground, listing two B-Sides (“Long Leather Coat” and “Big Boys Bickering” as album tracks (309, 652). Such slips are certainly forgivable in a work as long as Paul McCartney: The Life, but they do point toward a larger issue within the book. Ultimately, Norman sheds little insight into the inner workings of McCartney’s partnership with Lennon and seems less than familiar with a great deal of his post-Beatles music. Commenting on the writing of Rubber Soul, Norman remarks that Lennon and McCartney’s “output through 1965 shows no evidence of clouded minds [due to their enthusiastic embrace of marijuana during the course of that year]: the perfect balance of McCartney optimism and Lennon pessimism in ‘We Can Work It Out’; the premature nostalgia of ‘In My Life’, that seemingly quintessential John track for which in fact Paul wrote most of the melody.” In a few moments, Norman sheds fresh light on McCartney’s creative process and the collaborative process that characterized the Fab Four’s strongest work. Discussing “Eleanor Rigby,” Norman notes how the rest of the band helped with the lyric—I, for one, never knew that the “all the lonely people” refrain came from George. “At different stages,” Norman reports, “Paul tried [the song] out on Donovan (who later remembered lyrics completely different from the final ones), on William S. Burroughs (who praised their conciseness, far from Naked Lunch though they were) and on his piano-teacher from the Guildhall School (who was indifferent).”

A musician himself, having played in jazz bands in his youth, Paul’s father, Jim McCartney, remained supportive of his son’s musical ambitions, but could not help but chastise Paul for spreading dreadful Americanisms when “She Loves You” hit the charts (“Couldn’t you sing ‘Yes, yes, yes for once?’”).

These moments are revealing, and one wishes Norman would have dwelt longer on McCartney’s creative process and the band’s inner workings. And while he devotes four hundred pages to his life after the Beatles and dutifully describes the circumstances that surrounded each of his post-Beatle albums, he offers little insight into how we might approach his solo catalogue; the second half of Paul McCartney: The Life suggests how Paul kept himself busy recording new records and raising a family with Linda—the book carefully shows how McCartney was devoted to establishing the warm family dynamics that he had enjoyed with his tight-knit family dynamics as a child in Liverpool—but ultimately seems surprisingly uninterested in offering a new critical understanding of his post-Beatles work. While he lingers on some of McCartney’s better known records—there is an entertaining chapter on the perilous conditions that had surrounded the recording sessions for Band on the Run in Nigeria—Norman remains slightly dismissive of Paul’s solo years. Considering the track list for Band on the Run, the record that many critics still consider the high water mark of his post-Beatles’ work, Norman observes that “’Jet’, despite having all the drive and euphoria of a mass jailbreak, was simply the name of his Labrador dog. ‘Let Me Roll It’ was a send-up of, or homage to, John and the Plastic Ono Band. ‘Mamunia’ commemorated the grand hotel in Marrakesh where Lord Grade had offered the deal leading to the James Paul McCartney TV special.” [9] Although he goes into great detail in chronicling the nine days in 1980 that McCartney spent in a Japanese prison cell, he alludes to Paul’s imprisonment throughout the book, Norman seems reluctant to address the quality of much of McCartney’s solo output. The book breezes through many of his largely successful late records. Of Flaming Pie, an album in which McCartney appeared to be rejuvenated from the experience of making The Beatles Anthology, he comments that it was a “commercial and critical success, Paul’s first in the US Top 10 since Tug of War,” but says little about the actual record itself. Similarly, Norman offers little insight into McCartney’s songwriting partnership with Elvis Costello, a collaboration that proved fruitful for both artists.[10]

These lapses are unfortunate as they not only ignore some of McCartney’s more interesting solo work, but they also imply that somehow Paul has been just going through the motions for the past thirty years. Paul McCartney: The Life in many ways establishes itself as the definitive biography, but one leaves it wishing that Norman had more to say about the actual music that Paul has produced during his long and winding solo career. The book’s conclusion, in which Norman leaves early from a McCartney concert after he has met with Paul backstage, remains oddly appropriate. “I’ve been able to uncover a Paul McCartney very different from the one the world thinks it knows,” Norman writes in the book’s epilogue, “a workaholic and perfectionist who, despite his vast fame, has been underestimated by history and who, despite his undoubted genius, is in his own way as insecure as was his seeming total opposite, John Lennon. While recognising his foibles, I’ve come to respect—frequently admire—the man for whom I was once seen as cherishing such animosity.” As a final verdict on McCartney, this assessment seems more than just, suggesting how Norman has made peace with McCartney’s talent and legacy. And yet, for my money, I would like to believe that the definitive take on McCartney will probably come from someone willing to stick around through the final nah, nah, nah’s of “Hey Jude.”

[1] I first learned about the plans behind this project in Peter Doggett’s excellent You Never Give Me Your Money: The Beatles After the Breakup (New York: HarperCollins, 2009).

[2] This summer I was particularly upset by the McCartney camp’s decision to include just one measly song from Off the Ground (and it is not even the right song) on his career spanning compilation, Pure McCartney. And in case you were wondering, the right song to have included from Off the Ground would be “Hope of Deliverance.” Possible dark horse contender would be “Lovers that Never Were.” I would go with the unreleased demo version with Elvis Costello on piano, but that would probably be asking too much. Even more egregious was the decision to not include any songs from Flowers in the Dirt. That album kicked off the largely sustained run of excellent records that Paul has released over the past twenty years. Any comprehensive collection of McCartney’s solo work needs to at least “My Brave Face,” one of his best co-writes with Elvis Costello. Otherwise, Pure McCartney is a well-designed compilation covering Paul’s post-1984 work, which is his previous greatest hits packages did not include.

[3] In my mind, the best of the bunch is Peter Ames Carlin’s biography. He does not necessarily bring much new to McCartney’s story, but he has a good appreciation of his music that allows to offer a more even-handed view of the post-Beatle years. See: Carlin, Peter Ames. Paul McCartney: A Life. New York: Touchstone, 2009. Doyle, Tom. Man on the Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970s. New York: Ballantine Books, 2013. Sounes, Howard. Fab: An Intimate Life of Paul McCartney. Cambridge: De Capo Press, 2010.

 [4] Of these releases, Sounes’s biography stands as the most comprehensive, covering the entire span of McCartney’s life and career. Yet it remains a frustrating read for anyone who actually enjoys McCartney’s music. Sounes openly admits to being less than a fan and his ambivalence towards much of the music results in an awkward biography, leaving the impression that Sounes would have much rather spent his time spinning Imagine or All Things Must Pass (or maybe even Ringo’s Rotogravure than spend time considering Paul’s silly love songs. At its most egregious, Fab goes after some of McCartney’s strongest contributions to the Beatles; considering “Here, There, and Everywhere,” he argues that the song possesses “an insipid quality that became more pronounced in Paul’s songwriting as he got older.” Plenty of Paul’s songs might be described as “insipid”— “She’s My Baby” from Speed of Sound would get my vote with its weird sex as mopping up gravy metaphor—but this dismissal of perhaps Revolver’s most sublime track suggests a troubling disinclination towards McCartney’s work.

 [5] Miles, Barry. Paul McCartney: May Years From Now. New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1997.

 [6] While not officially authorized, McCartney did give the project his “tacit approval,” allowing Norman more access to McCartney’s family and former colleagues. Such access allows Norman to present a fuller overview of McCartney’s relationship with his family, in particular his father.

[7] In the preface to 2003 edition of Shout!, Norman acknowledges that his assessment of McCartney in the initial edition he had been “too harsh,” confessing that “it was wrong of me—though it won me my initial access to Yoko [Ono]—to say, as I did on an American TV news program, that ‘John was three-quarters of the Beatles.’” Norman, Philip. Shout!: The Beatles in Their Generation. Revised and Updated. New York: Fireside, 2005.

[8] Actually one of the few McCartney releases I do not own. The others being his soundtrack to the Hailey Mills feature The Family Way (1966), his score to his ballet Ocean’s Kingdom (2011), as well as his first two Fireman releases.

[9] I have always thought that “Jet,” with its talk of the “time you told them you were going to marrying soon” and a “father as bold as the sergeant major” was a reflection of Linda’s sometimes strained relationship with her father.

[10] The results of their partnership would be split onto two McCartney records (the aforementioned Flowers in the Dirt and Off the Ground) and three Costello albums (Spike, Mighty Like a Rose, and All this Useless Beauty). And I have to give a little bit of a shout out to “So Like Candy,” which is overlooked song in McCartney and Costello’s songbook.